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Joe Vella: Podcasting Trane

Jason Crane By

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It worked because it was John Coltrane and he's an amazing artist who affects people in all sorts of ways.
Joe VellaJoe Vella has been merging jazz and technology for decades, starting with early Internet bulletin boards, founding JazzOnline.com, and then moving into the world of podcasting. As a podcaster, he's produced series on everyone from The Beach Boys, for the fortieth anniversary of Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966) to Pat Metheny. Now he's turned his attention to one of the towering musical figures of all time—saxophonist John Coltrane. Vella's Traneumentary is a multi-episode exploration of Coltrane's music and influence. It features a who's who of jazz luminaries, from musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor and Jimmy Cobb to writers and producers such as Joel Dorn and Ashley Kahn.

Joe Vella: I got a call from Concord Records—who I worked a lot with in terms of marketing a lot of the Van Gelder reissues and Prestige and Riverside and so forth—to do a podcast to go along with their [John Coltrane] boxed set called Fearless Leader (Prestige, 2006). They wanted an episode, and I decided that you can't just do one podcast on one particular point in John Coltrane's career. As great as the Prestige stuff is, there's no way. I said, "Hold on a minute, let me make a couple of calls. I have an idea."



So I called Jon Vanhala at Verve and Jeff Zakim at Blue Note, and I called a colleague who knew somebody at Rhino/Atlantic. About forty minutes later everybody had agreed to participate in creating a John Coltrane podcast series. It wasn't even that hard a sell. I said, "You know what I did with Pet Sounds. Why don't we do the same thing? Except we'll have a whole bunch of people talk about John Coltrane and we'll celebrate him and his music, and we'll use all of your music in it. It'll be a cool thing that people can send to their friends and talk about. We'll create a blog. Nobody has ever done this before, and you [record label] guys own most of his catalog, and we haven't collectively worked together on any project I can ever remember. Ken Burns' Jazz is probably the most recent thing that a few labels worked on together, but that doesn't really count. This is an innovative, pioneering thing. We'll get all four record labels in the same room and work it out."



So we got all the stuff together, and everybody left me alone. They let me lay it out. Verve let me use a conference room, and everybody sent me whatever albums I needed. I had a lot of the Coltrane things, but I needed some other things. I had a stack of stuff that I'd bring and give to the people who participated. And that was the beginning of it. I didn't even have a clear idea of what questions I would ask.



My whole concept after thinking about it was that if we create something that is big—that is different, but comes from the concept of John Coltrane as a very important artist—I think there's a huge group of people who would probably really love what he's about. We need to create this vehicle to bring people into the music almost casually. We needed to create something that would be so enticing that it would create that emotional connection. The way that most people had going into Tower Records when you'd hear what was playing on the PA and you'd say, "Wow, this is cool." It was like an experience. Music is an emotional buy.



I thought about how I could create that effect through the podcast, knowing that podcasts are still somewhat green. But it would be a way to celebrate the artist. People could sit back and listen to these pieces, knowing that the end result would be to remind them to listen to Coltrane records or to go buy a Coltrane record.



I made a list of people and talked to other colleagues. We all traded black books and numbers. I called people and said, "I just want to interview you about John Coltrane. Period. I don't have any specific questions for you. I just want to ask you about your experience of John Coltrane." Obviously, most of the people were big fans. I also purposefully picked out some people like biographer Lewis Porter and author Ashley Kahn and educators who I felt would be my educational and historical sources. So I'd have a backbone that was true to John Coltrane—not that it was supposed to be a historical document or anything. Mainly it's just great music and people should hear it. And they should hear other people talk about why it's so great so they can experience it for themselves.



I ended up creating a small cluster of [Coltrane] alumni who I had access to: [pianist] Steve Kuhn and [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins and [drummer] Jimmy Cobb and [pianist] McCoy [Tyner]. The whole process started with McCoy. Then I picked a selection of artists who loved Coltrane and who I had access to. That's how I got [Saturday Night Live saxophonist] Lenny Pickett, [pianists] Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper and [saxophonist] Joe Lovano and so forth. The hardest part of all of it was scheduling the interviews.


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